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Creating a tender meatball isn't all about the kind of meat you choose, the herbs you incorporate or the size of the finished product. The trick to the perfect meatball lies in the binder you use, as well as your ability to fend off the temptation to overwork the ingredients. So whether you're creating an Italian feast with marinara sauce, a whopping plate of Swedish meatballs or just a batch of plain meatballs, adhering to a few basic tips enables you to produce a juicy, tender finished product.
Selecting the Meat
Meatballs can be made from any type of ground meat. For example, in America, ground beef is predominant, while a true Italian meatball is often a combination of equal parts of ground beef, pork and sometimes veal. Health-conscious people may opt for ground chicken or turkey. Meatballs made of ground lamb give your dish a Mediterranean twist.
Meat that contains more fat produces a juicier, more tender meatball. However, a good binder does the same.
It's All About the Binder
No matter what meat you choose, the binder -- the mixture of bread and milk or water -- is the key to a tender meatball. Meat proteins shrink during cooking, which means meatballs without a binder may become tough. Adding the bread and milk mixture -- sometimes referred to as panade -- keeps the meatballs tender and light.
Choose fresh bread such as Italian or Portugese-style, or regular sliced bread. Panko bread crumbs work well because of their coarse texture, but the Serious Eats website cautions to avoid traditional dry breadcrumbs as they tend to produce drier, denser meatballs.
If using bread, tear it into small pieces and place it into a bowl. In general, use 1/2 cup of breadcrumbs to 1/2 cup of milk or water for each 1 pound of meat. For a tangier taste, try buttermilk in place of regular milk. Mix the milk and bread until the bread completely absorbs the liquid.
Putting it Together
When the bread and liquid mixture is soggy, incorporate the ingredients that add flavor to the meatballs. For example, opt for finely diced onion and garlic and herbs such as fresh or dried oregano, parsely, basil or mint. Grated Parmesan or pecorino cheese ramps up the flavor as well. Mix your chosen ingredients with the bread, adding salt and pepper to taste. Add 1 egg for every 1 pound of meat. The meat joins the mixture as the last ingredient.
It's a misconception that eggs add moisture to meatballs. The moisture comes from the milk and breadcrumbs. Eggs merely serve to help bind the breadcrumbs and other ingredients with the meat, according to the Bon Appetit website. Too many eggs makes for tougher, dense meatballs.
Don't Overwork It
Tender meatballs require a light touch. Use your hands to mix the ingredients until they are just incorporated. You should be able to see recognizable pieces of the ground meat. Working your mixture into something that resembles a paste takes the mixing too far and doesn't result in juicy meatballs.
Shaping and Cooking
Whether you want small meatballs for Italian wedding soup or large, hand-sized meatballs, keep them tender by gently rolling each portion of the mixture between the palms of your hands until the mixture becomes round. Ensure the mixture doesn't stick to your skin by wetting your hands with water or lightly coating them with oil.
Meatballs can be fried, baked, broiled or placed directly into the sauce. Browning your meatballs on the stovetop or under the broiler and finishing them in the sauce until they are just cooked through helps keep the them tender, according to the Serious Eats website. Make sure the internal temperature reaches a safe 160 degrees Fahrenheit before serving.
- The Kitchn: How to Make Meatballs
- Chicago Tribune: Mario Batali: Secrets of a Tender Meatball
- Serious Eats: The Secrets of the Juiciest, Most Tender and Flavorful Italian-American Meatballs
- Beef and Lamb: How to Make Juicy, Tender Meatballs
- Bon Appetit: The 8 Most Common Meatball-Making Mistakes
- USDA: Ground Beef and Food Safety
- Robyn Mackenzie/iStock/Getty Images